Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

27827627Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. I read the first paragraph on amazon many moons ago and knew I had to read it.

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

It’s a fantastic opening paragraph. That combined with the idea of a Wood with malevolent power and I was all in.

It follows Agnieszka as she is chosen by the Dragon to serve him in his tower for 10 years as he works to keep the Wood from consuming the valley, and the kingdom with it.

I didn’t know how fairy tale-esque the novel would be (the clue should have been in the ‘girl serves dragon in his tower for 10 years but apparently my brain didn’t pick up on that very large cue), I don’t know what my expectations were before reading but they weren’t that! I love fairy tales, and I love stories that feel like fairy tales. So Uprooted was a win.

I really enjoyed the way magic was presented, and the different methods of using it, as well as the names given to the various wizards. They made me very happy. One thing I wished for though, was more of Jaga. I adore the mythology she is based on and would have loved to have seen a little bit more on that.

However, the thing that stole the show was the Wood itself, how it was described, the back story, all of it. I adore the Wood more than anything else, though I think Kasia comes close second.

It’s a lovely little standalone, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good fairy tale.

Advertisements

Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The GracekeepersA flooded world.
A floating circus.
Two women in search of a home.

North lives on a circus boat with her beloved bear, keeping a secret that could capsize her life.

Callanish lives alone in her house in the middle of the ocean, tending the graves of those who die at sea. As penance for a terrible mistake, she has become a gracekeeper.

A chance meeting between the two draws them magnetically to one another – and to the promise of a new life.

But the waters are treacherous, and the tide is against them.

A floating circus. There was no way I wasn’t going to read this book. Ahem…

In keeping with my current theme of prettily-written post-apocalyptic fiction, with more of a character drive than a plot drive, I present to you The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan.

The novel follows Callanish and North, a gracekeeper and circus performer respectively, as they try to find their place in a world which seems to be against them.

Unlike most of the dystopia/post-apocalypse type novels I’ve read, The Gracekeepers takes you to a world of water, where the end of the world was meted out by way of floods, and, unlike most of these novels, the narrative isn’t too pre-occupied by the world of Before. We have no idea whether the end came suddenly or gradually. There are some mentions of it but these are more in-passing than actual plot points. I quite like the lack of importance it places on the world of Before, the idea that the world changed but it is what it is. There’s no sub-plot of trying to restore it – which would be a challenge for any protagonist when the world of before is beneath more water than can be imagined. (Unless the world had a giant plug that no one had discovered yet…)

Speaking of protagonists, the novel has two primarily, Callanish and North (whose name I love), but it doesn’t just tell the story through their eyes. Interspersed between their chapters, we hear from other characters, each a brush stroke adding dimension to the rest of the story. It’s a short book but it covers a fair amount of characters. If I were to name my favourites, I would probably name most of the cast, so I won’t. While not all of the characters are likeable, they are each compelling in their own way.

I really like the idea of the gracekeepers, and graces, and how Damplings (those who live out at sea rather than on land) mourn their dead. The world-building in this novel isn’t the most in-depth but what’s there is both pretty and intriguing.

The one thing, I think, that lets this book down is the ending – something happens which is quite heartbreaking but it isn’t really dealt with in the way that you would expect having read the rest of the novel. It feels as if a few extra paragraphs might have done it a bit more justice. Despite this it is a lovely novel and I did end up thinking about it for a while after finishing – I would love to know what happened to some of the other characters.

It also has a gorgeous cover. Just look at it. Beautiful.

A pretty little read, both sad and hopeful – definitely worth it if you’re into floating circuses.

Illustration: The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia BascomHello, Elou. You know that time you illustrated a book and completely forgot to tell anyone about it? Yeah. We’re going to blog about that now. Finally.

We’re going to take a trip back in time, back to May of this year (2015). In May, a book was released. A book I created the artwork for…

And somehow completely forgot to blog about. Well done, Elou. Top form.

For those of you who don’t know, I work as a Production Designer for Jessica Kingsley Publishers and its imprint Singing Dragon. I spend my days making books look pretty, correcting books while they go from manuscript to finished product, printing books that are low in stock, taking photos of books for the work Instagram… – it’s a lot of books. Occasionally, when I’m lucky, I also get to illustrate them!

Once upon a time, lovely author Julia Bascom (before she was an author, I think) wrote a blog entry about what it’s like to have autism. This blog entry grew in momentum, being read and shared by autists and neuro-typicals alike until one day lovely commissioning editor Rachel Menzies decided to turn it into a fully-illustrated, 4-colour JKP book!

So in it came, and after any necessary editorial tinkerings, it was passed on to Production where it fell into the laps of two budding Production Designers, Francesca Sturiale (who is yet to have a website but informs me she will get around to making one at some point) and Emma Carroll (that’s me!) – at this point, it was Emma, as it was pre-illustration; Elou is the moniker I give my creative work but Emma is the name I go by at work-work and life outside of making pretty things – Fran on typography and page layout, and little ol’ me, after a series of meetings and discussions about what this book could look like (it was an important book and we wanted to get it right), on artworking!

Normally, when a book is commissioned at JKP, the commissioning editors tend to either already have an illustrator on board or have one in mind, or they write up a brief and offer it up in house. In this case, lovely commissioning editor Rachel had an idea. It wasn’t briefed as such, instead we were told it should be colourful, playful, abstract – and we ran with it.

This book threw me completely out of my comfort zone. If you’ve been following my Inktober posts, you know that my drawings are often whimsical and liney and very much not abstract but I love a good challenge. I put on my digital painting boots, grabbed my tablet and leapt into Photoshop – never to be seen again. And the rest, as they say, is history.

A spread from The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom, artwork by Elou Carroll (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015)

A spread from The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom, artwork by Elou Carroll (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015)

Well, it’s not. I am going to elaborate a bit, firstly:

Tools and materials

The images were created in Photoshop using the following things.

  • Standard hard-edged round brush at 20% opacity, 30% flow
  • Standard hard-edged round eraser at 20% opacity, 30% flow
  • The custom warp option under the move tool
  • Textures including: rough paper, concrete, wallpaper and, at one point, a leaf
  • Wacom Intuos and Bamboo tablets

Pretty simple, but also pretty time-consuming due to using such low opacities. The low opacity, and the time it took to build up the colours, was worth it though, without it the images wouldn’t have such lovely soft lines and ‘fadey bits’ (a technical term) around the edges. Of course, I could have used a soft brush but the feel would have been very different (I did dabble when I was first doodling out ideas).

The style stayed pretty much the same from first drafts to end results; at first, the illustrations had more facial features and little arms but it was decided they needed to be a bit more abstract than that. The eyes and mouths were something I wanted to keep to make the figures more approachable.

A spread from The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom, artwork by Elou Carroll (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015)

A spread from The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom, artwork by Elou Carroll (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015)

Colours

Throughout the artwork, there are only four colours: blue, orange, pink and a deep burgundyish (and white, if that counts as a colour, it’s up for debate), with small dabs of brown in one lone image. I loved the stark contrast between the warm tones and the blue, and having one stand-out colour is a good focal point on a page – the blue is indicative of some of the content, which carries through to the typography and simple backgrounds, as well as being integral to the illustration.

The colours were a learning curve, first drafts were all incredibly colourful – I took a USE ALL THE COLOURS approach, which was a little over the top. Don’t get me wrong, lots of colours can work for some projects but this was not one of them. After a little chit, a little chat and a fair amount of guidance from Art Editor Extraordinaire Mike Medaglia (potentially before he disembarked the good ship production and emigrated to editorial island, I forget), which I have stuck to ever since, I picked out my little pallet with the help of Fran and recoloured everything (layer masks saved my life). It was the best decision we could have made.

Prior to this I was just thinking ‘pretty’, when I should have been thinking of the implications of using every colour imaginable – in this case, it was confusing and made it difficult for the eye to work out where it should be looking. Like I said, learning curve.

A spread from The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom, artwork by Elou Carroll (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015)

A spread from The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom, artwork by Elou Carroll (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015)

Several drafts and a few rounds of corrections later, the files whizzed off to our colour printers in China and the books were delivered to our warehouse, almost selling the entirety of our US stock pre-publication date!

If you want to see more, this book would make a pretty nifty Christmas present (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). It can be purchased in both ebook and print formats via the JKP website, but also Waterstones, Amazon and bricks-and-mortar bookshops!

Review: Alice in Bed by Cathleen Schine

12311785

Stricken by a mysterious malady, college sophomore Alice Brody has suddenly lost the use of her legs. How does a bright, beautiful, and now immobile young woman proceed with her passions? As she convalesces in a Manhattan hospital, Alice finds herself attended by a motley group of visitors: indifferent nurses, doctors both good and bad, divorcing parents, and eccentric relatives. But Alice is a creature of many charms, whose wit can enchant those bearing even the worst bedside manner. With a captivating heroine of great comic depth, Alice in Bed is balm for whatever ails you.

I enjoyed this little book (I also enjoyed the way the cover felt, lovely and textured!). If you’re expecting something bleak, you will be pleasantly surprised; though situated in a hospital where 19 year-old Alice is unable to move her legs for reasons unknown, Alice in Bed is witty and amusing, quite unexpectedly.

Its cast of characters do sometimes seem like exaggerated caricatures but this is not to the novel’s detriment, in fact, I rather liked it. Alice was by far my favourite and though I find her taste in men somewhat dismal, her interactions with the other characters and inner monologuing can be endearing. Not an incredible amount happens in this book, it is largely and successfully character-driven.

Alice in Bed is a quick read (hence the short review!), you could get through it in an evening. If, like me, you read it over the course of two days and don’t use book marks, you might find the lack of chapters hampering. However, losing your place for a small while is a cheap price to pay for the continuation of your reading experience – it’s worth finding your place again.

Review: The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones

The year is 1750.

Meet Tristan Hart, precociously talented student of medicine.

His obsession is the nature of pain and preventing. He is on a quest to cut through superstition with the brilliant blade of science.

Meet Tristan Hart, madman and deviant.

His obsession is the nature of pain, and causing it. He is on a quest to arouse the perfect scream and slay the daemon Raw Head who torments his days and nights.

Troubled visionary, twisted genius, loving sadist.

What is real and what imagined in Tristan Hart’s brutal, beautiful, complex world?

This book was difficult. I had trouble with this book. I am normally a speedy reader, I can get through books rather quickly but not this one. Not because I didn’t like it (though, I spent a good chunk of the novel despising Tristan Hart) but because of the style it is written in. I could perhaps have been quicker if it were just the ‘mine heart’s and ‘mine head’s but I found the Seemingly Random capitalisation Hard to Deal With. I had to take a few days to process the novel in between chunks of reading. It was quite Distracting as You Might expect. Though, I do understand the reasoning behind it, to appear similar to texts released during the 1700s – it manages this marvelously.

I was drawn to The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones due to the promise of darkness and folklore. I was not disappointed, it is a very dark book, rife with visions of changelings and transmorphing gypsies. It deals with pain and pleasure, with anatomy and identity, and delusions; it was hard, at times, to tell what was real and what was not.

This book was intriguing, perhaps the best way to describe it. It moves at quite a slow pace, with lots to take in. You really have to sit down and read it, it’s not one of those books you can read while on an exercise bike or a running machine (I tried and failed at the former). While it wasn’t a quick read or a book in which I absolutely had to read on and on until I’d finished, I did want to know what happened. I never found myself tempted to put it away to attempt to read again later rather than finish in the first read through – when I first started reading I wasn’t sure that this would be the case but once I got over thinking badly of Tristan Hart (he seemed less pompous as the book progressed), I knew I was going to finish it.

There is a twist at the end, I will not tell you what that twist is but I will tell you it was among my favourite parts of the novel, alongside the storytelling employed by Katherine in her letters and Tristan’s exploration of goblins. I am glad I stuck with it.

If you like rather a lot of darkness, enjoy folklore and historical fiction, you might want to give this a try. I’m going to need a rather large break before I read this book again but I do intend to – there are most definitely things I will have missed while trying to get my head around the writing style.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – an MA Publishing Design Project.

As I spent last Tuesday wandering around looking ridiculous in a boiling hot, very heavy graduation gown. I figured it was high time I posted about my major project, which I have been meaning to post about for 9 months now.

See above, here I am in said ridiculous graduation get up with my best friend, without whom, along with our Alice, Mad Hatter, Queen of Hearts and etc. pictured in the images to follow, my major project would not have been possible.

We had long wanted to do an Alice related photography project and my MA seemed like the perfect opportunity. Beth, pictured above, assembled all of the costumes (having made some of the pieces herself!) and did the makeup and hair styling for each character, Rebekah acted as our chameleon and played the entire cast of characters barring the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, I shot the images, manipulated them and typeset the text until we had a finished book. I call these two my dream team and for good reason.

Three days were spent shooting all of the images, I took at least 800 , if not more, during those three days. It was quite possibly the most entertaining experience of my life. Once all of the images were shot, 3 months were spent creating the rest of the book. Each image had to be carefully chosen and manipulated, only a small number actually made it into the finished book. Images were shot in natural light on a Canon 550D using a 50mm f/1.8 lens, mostly in a garden in front of a white sheet. They were edited in Photoshop CS6 and the book was designed in InDesign CS6.

Surprisingly, it all fell together without much trouble, though a few of the images can no longer be edited (I am still baffled as to why).

The book wasn’t the only thing I submitted, I also included a website splash page, some designs for playing cards, an AI, alternate cover and what OICPS classes as a BLAD, in addition to two videos which can be found at the end of the post.

There are a few things I wish I’d done differently but, overall, I was incredibly happy with this project and have a printed version sitting proudly on a shelf in my bedroom. It was the biggest project I’d ever undertaken and I came out the other side with all of my faculties still intact and more Adobe knowledge than I had before I started.

Below, you can see the whole thing in all its digital glory (though, seeing it in print is far more satisfying and I’m not sure why the issuu viewer is appearing quite so tiny – click on it for full-screen).